I have been spending a lot of time with my new Olympus PEN E-P3 since I got it a couple of weeks ago. In fact, it’s so light that I tend to wear it around my neck most of the time. I figured that the E-P3 would be a good camera for playing around and normal “snap-shots”, but I was dubious about its capability to produce nice, sharp landscape photos. You can read endless “experts” online talk about sensor size, this camera vs that camera, etc… and I do read that stuff. Image quality is definitely important to me, but reading the objective opinion of another photographer can only take you so far. I want to know if I can make the images I want to make with the image quality I expect without spending an hour in front of the computer on each image.
So far the E-P3 has impressed me every time I’ve used it. It is very easy to use, lightweight and just plain fun. I know that is not a very scientific assessment, but it’s hard not to pick up the Pen and play with it. But what about the photos?
I am not too concerned with the high ISO performance from the Pen. The landscape shooting i have done so far has been at the base (200) ISO. If I am going to be shooting something important that I know will be in low light with no flash I will definitely break out the Nikon D3S. That said, the images I have made with the E-P3 at ISO’s around 1600 have been just fine. They show a little noise, but it’s more of a “film grain” type of noise and it doesn’t bother me at all. I have been impressed with the detail and sharpness that the higher ISO shots capture.
The first Olympus lenses that really sold me on the Pen system were the Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 12mm f/2.0 and the Olympus M. Zuiko Digital ED 45mm f/1.8. I have them both and they are both surprisingly sharp. For good, real-world reviews of both of these lenses check out Steve Huff Photo. I was particularly excited to get the 12mm lens (24mm field of view on the E-P3) because I normally like to shoot wide. I figured if the 14-42mm kit lens did well with landscape shots the 12mm “premium” lens would be killer. It IS!
I love the fact that Olympus included a distance scale on the 12mm f/2 so you can easily set the lens to its hyperfocal distance. Shooting landscapes this way is a dream. No more trying to figure out where to focus for maximum depth of field, just set the lens manually and get great, sharp shots. This is an area where the smaller sensor in the Pen cameras is an asset. A smaller sensor inherently shows greater depth of field than a larger sensor. This is bad if you are going for soft out of focus backgrounds, but good if you’re shooting landscapes.
I have also been enjoying composing photos using the LCD on the E-P3. It is nice to put the camera and tripod in virtually any position without worrying about how you’re going to get your eye to the viewfinder. The Pen has a live histogram and exposure preview to help you get the exposure like you want it, and there is a built in digital level (vertical and horizontal) to help keep your horizons straight.
I made a few frames with the kit lens in addition to the shots with the 12mm f/2. I expected to see a huge difference in image quality between the two. I was surprised to see that the RAW files with each lens were very close in terms of detail and sharpness. I think the 12mm at its best beats the kit lens at its best, but I don’t think a lot of folks would notice the difference in most situations. At base ISO on a sturdy tripod I wouldn’t hesitate to use either lens.
Genus variable ND filter
In order to get the nice blur in the water like the shots above you need a SLOW shutter speed. 1 or 2 seconds at a minimum, but my favorites are usually in the 10-15 second range. Shutter speeds that slow really smooth out the water and give the shots a dreamy quality. To get these long shutter speeds you should close down your aperture and use your lowest ISO. Depending on the light level, these adjustments may not be enough to allow you to slow the shutter without overexposing the image.
My favorite way to limit the light and draw out the shutter speed is to use a variable neutral density filter. I use the Genus Variable ND filter that I got from OutdoorPhotoGear.com. This screw-in filter allows you to reduce your exposure from 2 stops to 8 stops by turning a ring on the filter. I have a 77mm Variable ND filter that fits on my large Nikon lenses. I use Step-Up Rings to mount the same filter to the smaller Pen lenses. Here’s how I use the variable ND filter to shoot waterfalls…
My camera is se at it’s lowest (200) ISO in Aperture priority mode with the aperture around f/11-f/16. I frame my shot with the ND filter on it’s minimum setting and look to see what shutter speed the camera selects. If the shutter speed is as slow as I am looking for I will take the shot. If the shutter speed is not as slow as I want, I simply turn the variable ND filter until the shutter speed gets low enough. You can watch the exposure settings change on the LCD as you turn the filter.
I was pleased to see how the E-P3 handled the longer exposure times. I didn’t see any extra noise or artifacts at all. Overall I am very pleased with my new Oly. I can’t wait to put it to work in the mountains of North Carolina next week!